Kahramanmaraş Earthquake: How the Syrian Regime is Instrumentalising the Natural Catastrophe

By Elise Daniaud

First Reactions and International Solidarity Towards an Isolated Syria

On February 6, the world started to witness some of the consequences of the tragic earthquake which hit the southeast of the Anatolian peninsula, close to the Syrian-Turkish border. Four weeks after the events, the death toll is estimated above 51.000. In the following days, videos and images of total chaos were appearing on our screens, showing shattered buildings, streets and districts, collapsed roads, and even the ground ripped open. In this situation, a race against time started for the rescue teams tryingto get as many people as possible out of the rubble. As Northern Syria was still “cut from the world” and only accessible from Turkey by the Bab al-Hawa crossing, which was closed due to road damages according to Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, local Syrian rescuers and residents were left alone to dig for potential survivors while national and international humanitarian aid was not showing up. 

©Ali Haj Suleiman
A local rescue team searching for victims in the rubble of a collapsed building in Jenderes, in the province of Aleppo.

Until he visited the city of Aleppo four days later, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who aims more than ever to be recognised as the legitimate ruler of Syria in the international arena, remained silent. The official social media accounts of the Presidency and other ministries including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, published a series of posts showing his reactivity and efficiency, leading emergency meetings and actions, but also receiving phone calls of solidarity from foreign leaders, including his two allies Iran and Russia, neighbour countries such as Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, followed by Algeria, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Palestine, Egypt, China, Venezuela, Belarus, Armenia, and the Vatican as well as Abkhazia. On February 16, during his first official speech on the national channel Syria TV since the catastrophe, al-Assad insisted on the necessity to “thank all the countries which have stood with us from the first hours of the disaster, our Arab brothers and our friends.”

A Strategic Goal in Times of Political Isolation

Very quickly, the natural catastrophe took a strategic significance as it appeared as an opportunity for the Syrian regime to try to break the state of isolation characterising the country since the implementation of international sanctions by major political powers including the US, the EU, Canada, and Australia, condemning the violent repression of civilians in the Syrian war. During his first intervention in the streets of Aleppo, al-Assad did not hesitate to underline the gap between the “inhumane West”, responsible for the inefficiency of humanitarian aid delivery, and the other countries, in the following words: “it is said that the West prioritised politics over expressing humanity, but this is not what happened: to prioritise one over the other, you would need to have both. […] The humanitarian concern does not exist [on their side]”.

The fact that he took the time the very same day to comment on the aid delivery coming from Algeria, which was mediatised on Arabic-speaking social media, is not a coincidence. Rather, such declaration underlines his will to draw a striking contrast between “two worlds” which do not share the same values. It is important to remember that last summer, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra visited Damascus after Syrian Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad was invited to participate in the 60th anniversary of Algeria’s independence ceremonies. As stated by al-Assad himself, “the fact that Algeria is the ‘country of a million martyrs’ is included in our school programmes. We grew up with Syrian women who were selling their jewellery and everything they owned to send it to Algeria as aid. […] The relationship between Syria and Algeria is built on Syria helping Algeria during the revolution, and Algeria standing for the Arab and Syrian causes for many decades.”  

Source: Twitter, @Presidency_Sy
Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo visiting a site where the rescue teams from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are working. The Algerian flag is displayed at the forefront.

The war narrative implemented by the Syrian regime is not new. Since the beginning of the revolution, the demands of the protestors have constantly been violently repressed, discredited, and attributed to foreign influence and conspiracy theories. The regime, on its side, has been picturing a world divided between “us” and “them”, opposing a united and resilient Syrian people living in its Syrian “homeland”, the “beating heart of Arabism”, a regular expression in al-Assad’s speeches, to a Western enemy responsible for brutal imperialism, colonialism, and illegitimate interventionism, trying to destabilise Syria “from outside”. On February 6, the pro-Bashar online platform al Mayadeen was developing the same arguments by denouncing the “Western selective humanitarianism“ and listing the “countries and blocs which ignored Syria’s appeal for international aid to help face the devastating earthquake, leaving thousands of Syrians alone to face their fate.” In the same logic, humanitarian aid delivered by supporters of Assad, including Lebanese Hezbollah, was showcased on February 13, when delivery aid planes were progressively celebrated by the Syrian Arab News Agency “SANA” coming from Iran, UAE, Iraq, Russia, Libya, Chechnya, India and Jordan, but also Italy, Romania and the EU.

An Acceleration of Diplomatic Visits

In such a context of rapid changes and opportunities, one cannot ignore the official visits which took place in Damascus in presence of al-Assad and Ministry of Foreign affairs Faisal Mekdad, while being emphasised by official communication channels. A Lebanese ministerial delegation headed by the Minister of Foreign affairs and Emigrants Abdallah Bou Habib travelled to Syria only two days after the earthquake, followed by the Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi on February 15, on his first trip since the beginning of the war, to discuss the humanitarian and aid needs of the country. Emirati Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan was welcomed by Bashar al-Assad on February 12, when Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visited Damascus on February 28. Finally, al-Assad himself travelled to Oman to meet Sultan Haitham bin Tareq to “discuss bilateral relations and cooperation”. Willing to regain power and legitimacy in the regional and international arena, the Syrian dictator welcomed “any positive stance” towards the Syrian people, “especially from the Arab brothers”.

On February 26, a high-profile delegation of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union (AIPU) led by Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al-Halbousi and composed of Egyptian, Jordanian, Libyan, Palestinian, Lebanese and Omani representatives visited Damascus and officially disclosed worrying medium and long-term objectives seeking to rehabilitate al-Assad as the leader of Syria despite the brutal human rights violations and war crimes committed on the Syrian population. Indeed, the speaker of the Egyptian House of Representatives Dr Hanafy Ali Gebal insisted on the fact that “Syria will return to its normal position in the Arab League and that this visit aims at confirming support to Syrian leadership, government and people”.

Source: Twitter, @Presidency_Sy
Bashar al-Assad and Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al-Halbousi, leading the delegation of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union during their visit to Damascus.
Familiar Faces Advocating for the Lifting of the Sanctions

Parallel to the active promotion of its own rehabilitation, the Syrian regime is building momentum by demanding the lifting of  Western sanctions through several familiar interlocutors, a decision which its political entourage would highly benefit from. However, as reminded by EU Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič, “in no way EU sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime affect the delivery of humanitarian aid, […] and there is nothing there that would hamper the delivery of humanitarian aid and emergency assistance, especially not in the situation in which Syrian people find themselves after this terrible earthquake”. When it comes to US sanctions, economist Karam Shaar notes that “even though they do play a role in hindering the humanitarian response, it is hugely exaggerated by the regime. What is limiting the delivery of aid before all is its own thuggery and diversion”.

A very good example of such instrumentalization is the recent intervention of former Minister of expatriates and long-time political and media adviser to al-Assad Bouthaina Shabaan on British news channel Skynews, despite being known for her propagandistic and negationist positions for years, which normalise both the actions and the narratives of the regime. Described by Prof. Dr. Uğur Ümit Üngör as a member of the “pantheon of denialist state intellectuals whose sole purpose is the moral neutralisation and contortion of the historical record of their own state’s violence”, Shaaban seized the opportunity to blame the West for the catastrophic economic situation and the misery of the population, going so far as to accuse them of “causing the death of people”, adding that with the sanctions being lifted, Syrians “will be able to take care of their country”.

Syrian ambassador to the UN Bassam Sabbagh did not hesitate either to point at the sanctions to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres by asking “for the lifting of all restrictions imposed as part of unilateral coercive measures, which constitute major obstacles to emergency aid”. Finally, Khaled Hboubati, “agent to Assad” and President of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), one of the largest organisations in charge of implementing humanitarian assistance in the country, demanded the lifting of the sanctions during a press conference aired only one day after the earthquake. It is important to remember that the SARC remains under the control of the regime and its intelligence agencies. According to HRW, they “inspect aid deliveries, accompany convoys on their distribution routes, or are involved in approving humanitarian projects or rejecting them”.

Shy Western Reactions

The sordid cynicism of al-Assad and his political entourage does not come as a surprise to anyone as it is coherent with its history of violence and disregard for human life. In the same logic, the regime sends a constant message to its people: there will never be any “red line”, and no extraordinary circumstances, such as a natural catastrophes, will put an end to violence. However, a hard line could have been adopted by democratic and pluralist states in such extraordinary circumstances, who decided not to challenge the authority of the regime to support the Syrian people by channelling aid to Northern Syria. By the same line of reasoning, the UN agencies did not activate their emergency coping mechanism as they decided to wait for the permission of the UN Security Council and al-Assad, even though each hour was critical for saving lives. The European Union, according to Luigi Pandolfi, Head of EU humanitarian aid operations in Syria, “has increased its support for Syria through the Red Crescent Organisation, to ensure that aid reaches all parts of Syria as quickly as possible”. Yet, the compromission of the UN with the Assad clan has been regularly denounced and documented over the last decade through a series of scandals involving relatives and individuals close to the dictator’s family involved in local agencies such as the Central Emergency Response Fund[ed2] 

The Syrian opposition and its diaspora around the world are strongly condemning the inadequate answer of both the UN agencies and international organisations, which are sending a message to a regime in search of normalisation. Accused of inefficiency and inhumanity by the propaganda of the regime and its allies, cornered by the silence of Western leaders, Syria’s response coordinators are granting al-Assad’s wishes to remain the main actor in charge of centralising humanitarian aid. The embarrassing resignation of the West towards the inevitable presence of Assad is highlighted by the unilateral staging on Syrian social media of al-Assad meeting with Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Mekdad’s meetings with Geir Pedersen, UN Special Envoy for Syria, Kelly T. Clements, UNHCR’s Deputy High Commissioner, and Catherine Russell, Executive Director of UNICEF.

Source: Twitter, @Presideny_Sy
Bashar al-Assad meets Martin Griffiths on February 10 in Damascus. If the picture was displayed through Syrian official channels including the Syrian Arab News Agency website, and Twitter/Facebook official accounts of the Syrian presidency, it does not appear in communications issued by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Griffiths’ visit to Aleppo and Damascus was also noted in the highlights of the spokesperson for Secretary-General António Guterres on February 13, but the presidential meeting is not mentioned.
Conclusion

The Kahramanmaraş earthquake only piled up to the never-ending list of ordeals affecting the people living through a state of desolation, characterised by a deep economic crisis, social despair and deprivation, and organised criminality proper to the Syrian regime. In these circumstances, the Assad clan did not hesitate to instrumentalize the catastrophe with disconcerting speed to pursue its own rehabilitation, blame the West for the overall tragic situation of the country, demand the lift of the economic sanctions, and regain visibility in the eyes of some of its Arab neighbours. The favourable answer of the latter, materialised by phone exchanges, diplomatic visits and gestures of solidarity showcased in the Syrian media, has sent a strong signal in favour of Assad’s rehabilitation. However, such climate does not erase the crimes committed by the regime, nor does it succeed in bringing the West to recognise Assad’s imposed leadership. As noted by U.S Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Senator Jim Risch, “the recent wave of outreach to Assad will not benefit our Arab partners & will only open the door to potential US sanctions. The tragic earthquake doesn’t whitewash Assad’s crimes against the Syrian people. There must be no rehabilitation or re-entry in the Arab league.” When it comes to regional powers, it is also essential to note that most of the Gulf countries and Turkey, did not openly approach Syria.  And finally, a consequential public position against the Syrian regime, should not relieve politicians from developing clearer policies and perspectives that are able to distinguish between the regime and the people it oppresses, in order to strengthen solidarity and provide adequate support in times of natural and political disasters.


Elise Daniaud is a researcher and PhD candidate in Politics at LUISS Guido Carli University, Rome. She specialised her expertise in Russian history of ideas, Arab political thought, and the Syrian conflict. Through her professional experience, she worked closely with European, Russian, and Syrian civil societies. She is currently conducting her research on the role of mediatisation in contemporary warfare through the example of the Syrian conflict. Elise is fluent in English, Spanish, Russian and Arabic and lived in Belgium, Germany and Lebanon.

Recent publications:


Citation: Elise Daniaud, Kahramanmaras Earthquake: How the Syrian Regime is Instrumentalising the Natural Catastrophe, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.03.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/45624



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Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 14. März). Kahramanmaraş Earthquake: How the Syrian Regime is Instrumentalising the Natural Catastrophe. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 22. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut6d

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